Nonfiction begins with the disadvantage of being known and described as something that it is not: If you’re looking for fiction, “don’t look here” is the not-so-subtle message of this particular medium. Nonfiction’s history has always been about the dissidence between its grand illusion of narrative order and the reality it seeks to reveal, between the apparent logic, accuracy and connectivity of its reasoning and the information, knowledge and, ultimately, wisdom it wishes to impart.
In the last fifty years the nature, sources and inspiration of nonfiction have been undergoing a sea change. Adding to the issue have been the difficulties writers of nonfiction have had in adjusting to the increasing sources of nonfiction material that have opened up through the expansion of the internet. Early on, the growing surplus of data acted only as an overwhelming and annoying increase in volume. Without context, the data often had no direction or shape, thereby limiting its range of access to its natural extensions into meaning, knowledge and wisdom. About twenty years ago, Information Anxiety by Richard Saul Wurman, first gave voice to this issue, followed recently by Information Anxiety 2, which offers new insights into navigating this explosion of data.
But all the while that volume was growing exponentially, reaching into a worldwide range and depth unlike anything before in history. True, there’s a tremendous amount of pure junk out there – data static – and we’ve had to learn how to make wise choices. The downside of the proliferation of information can be a kind of paralysis of decision-making – what some have referred to as the tyranny of choice, also echoed in the groundbreaking book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (Barry Schwartz), which brilliantly describes the daily volume of choices we all face in everything from gum to cable channels. One can be overwhelmed by a virtual tidal wave of choices in data and sources, far too numerous and beyond all reasonable expectation for the individual to have the time or expertise to adequately absorb, review, check for accuracy, or set in context. But if more information was becoming available, and more confusing to sort through, more people also were able to access a wider range of choices, giving birth to the flip side of that tyranny in the form of what James Surowiecki’s book of the same title refers to as The Wisdom of Crowds.
Out of this chaotic, fragmented, electronic cloud of limitless information is emerging a new kind of nonfiction. Some would have it that what we’re witnessing has more to do with fiction absorbing/crossing-dressing with the styles and characteristics of nonfiction. But fiction has been playing these kinds of games since as early as the 1850s with novels like Moby Dick, and in the last forty years with ground-breaking efforts like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The real transformation, especially in the last twenty years, is in nonfiction, and its raison d’être comes out of a quest to carve sense out of that chaotic cloud, to make of it an art of the real that both defies the wall of data as well as embraces it as a wellspring of an entirely new creative form.
This new nonfiction is very much the predictable result of the window through which we often first enter the internet; namely, the website. Take a look at any website, and what do you see? Virtual “islands” of information – words, pictures, videos, sounds – floating on each page that we must somehow engage and piece together like a story in order to know or understand something. We don’t “read” these pages in a linear order, but rather find the links that make most sense. The designs of these sites all are studies in the engine of metaphor and the art of persuasion, but with their constituent parts floating unconnected. They aim at enticing us to actively pull together the connections between these islands, and at leading us to make individual choices of direction and understanding as we work our way through them. The experience of websites is both fluid and intuitive, structured and completely without rules or roadmaps. At their best, their architecture and structures are dynamic and nonlinear, creating new cognitive models that can actually enhance, or change our understanding. Their effect is one of gradual accumulation, a rolling up of information: a new kind of story put together, in part, by the reader.